As parents tasked with civilizing three very young children, my wife and I make a daily effort to instill in them an abiding sense of gratitude. We consider it a virtue critical to fashioning their character, particularly as 21st century middle-class Americans, who are materially more blessed than probably 99% of all humans who have ever lived. My wife and I want our kids never to take that for granted, especially around the holidays.
Thus I found it strange that Barbara Ehrenreich rang in the New Year with a New York Times opinion piece in which she actually complained that the holidays reeked inescapably of thankfulness, and that it signaled an “onanistic” degree of self-centeredness.
In “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” the author of such bestselling social studies as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream acknowledges, “It’s good to express our thanks, of course, to those who deserve recognition.” Gratitude is at least somewhat “prosocial,” she concedes, in the sense that “[y]ou have to be grateful to someone, who could be an invisible God, but might as well be a friend, mentor or family member.”
But Ehrenreich laments that the self-improvement industry has warped this potentiality into something “all about you, and how you can feel better.” “Gratitude gurus” like Oprah Winfrey and other motivational figures have hyped the physical and spiritual benefits of expressing gratitude, such as a stronger immune system, increased joy, and boosted self-esteem, all of which have been legitimized by scientific researchers like Martin Seligman, “the father of positive psychology.”
The result is that the emphasis has shifted from gratitude as “the moral memory of mankind” to gratitude as “a surefire ticket to happiness and even better health,” as Ehrenreich puts it. She finds this inward development contemptible:
All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow. If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love, and the current hoopla around gratitude is a celebration of onanism.
Wow. Granted, there is a danger of excess in this rise of gratitude to “self-help celebrity status,” and she may have a point with such examples as the Harvard Mental Health Letter suggesting you “thank someone mentally,” or the CNN yoga instructor encouraging students to write in “gratitude journals.” But it’s an overreaction to get worked up over such seemingly narcissistic techniques which nevertheless can foster a deeper sense of gratitude, and it’s hard to see how a happier, healthier, more self-aware, and more altruistic society is a bad thing.
Ehrenreich’s contempt stems from her passion for social justice. For her, “[s]aying grace to an abstract God is an evasion”; gratitude is wasted on an invisible God and should be reserved for the “whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible”: “Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table?”
Her version of meaningful gratitude is social justice “solidarity”—by which she means actively supporting economic equality to bridge “the wealth gap” in “our divided society.” We need, she asserts, “a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now”—in other words, less spiritually and psychologically transformative, more outwardly engaged in class warfare.
She cites the theoretical example of a lowly Walmart employee who gets a raise, and asks if that employee should “be grateful to the Waltons, who are the richest family in America?” For Ehrenreich, the employee grateful for a steady job and a raise is a “chump” as long as the family that employs him is wealthy. Well then, at what point should the employee feel gratitude? How much of the Walton family wealth should be divvied up among their over 2 million employees worldwide before Ehrenreich believes gratitude is appropriate?
One gets the feeling that Ehrenreich believes that until economic parity is fully achieved, gratitude to God and man is for suckers. But thankfulness is about acknowledging our blessings, not coveting the blessings of others. It is about personal humility, not societal equality; contentment, not resentment. This doesn’t mean we should not strive to better the material lives of all, only that gratitude is not entirely dependent on our material circumstances.
Yes, of course gratitude is, as Ehrenreich notes, to some degree “prosocial.” Yes, of course it should result, whenever appropriate and possible, in a repayment of debt to others, or an act of paying it forward. But by diminishing the meaningful spiritual and psychological dimensions of gratitude, and reducing it to a measure of social justice, Ehrenreich is distorting and devaluing it as much as the self-help gurus she so gleefully criticizes.